ELIZABETHTON — Timothy Jason Pate was bound over to a Carter County grand jury on Wednesday on first-degree murder charges in the death of 78-year-old Lonnie Townsend. His girlfriend, Whitney Kristina Harris, was also bound over on accessory after the fact, first-degree murder and tampering with evidence.
Sessions Court Judge John Walton ruled that sufficient evidence had been presented during a two-hour preliminary hearing on Wednesday afternoon. Prosecutors presented five witnesses, including Harris’ mother and three law enforcement officials who testified about the April 17 alleged murder.
According to the testimony, Townsend was a frequent visitor to South Roan Service Center in Johnson City and had met Pate at the service station. Pate had been an employee, but was no longer working there.
Witnesses said Townsend had befriended Pate and Harris, who had two children and lived in a mobile home at 214 Rockhouse Road in Carter County.
Scott Lott, a special agent for the Tennessee Bureau of testified about a statement Harris gave after the couple had been brought to the Johnson City Police Station on an investigation of the disappearance of Townsend.
Lott said Harris had been cooperative and told interviewers that Pate planned to kill Townsend for money. He allegedly said he was stressed over her asking him for money and his unemployment.
Lott said Townsend was invited into the couple’s home and was sitting at one end of a couch while Harris sat next to him, holding her baby. Lott said Harris told him Pate struck Townsend in the head with a hammer.
The TBI agent said Harris fled to the bedroom, but could still hear three more blows to Townsend’s head, as Pate both cursed Townsend and apologized to him for killing him.
After the killing, Townsend was carried to a bedroom used by Pate’s brother. The carpet was cut out and his body was rolled up in it. Harris then used bleach to clean up the blood.
Harris’ mother, Kristi Harris, said she came to the residence and saw the couch placed out in the rain and smelled the bleach. She said Pate told her not to go into the bedroom or he would kill her. She said he told her, “I have killed one man in my life and I will kill you.”
Kristi Harris said her daughter then escorted her to the back part of the trailer and told her they were preparing a surprise for her. She told her mother to leave for several hours. Kristi Harris went back to Erwin, where she was packing to move and continued packing.
She also said she found it odd that Townsend’s pickup truck was at her daughter’s residence when he was not there. Her daughter told her Townsend had gotten too drunk to drive and they had driven him home.
When she returned, she said her daughter told her the surprise was she was going to move into the bedroom. She said the carpet had been cut out so they could replace it with her favorite colors.
Investigators testified that Whitney Harris was very cooperative.
Lead investigator Travis Ludlow of the Carter County Sheriff’s Department said Harris had been “very cooperative” and she seemed to be really helping us with the things we needed.”
He said she took investigators to the place where Pate had dumped Townsend’s body. He said it had been dumped on a mountain in Unicoi County. The site was at the end of a narrow dead end road and he said no attempt had been made to hide the remains, they had simply been dumped.
Walton said the state had presented adequate evidence for Pate to be bound over on the original charges of first-degree murder premeditated and first-degree murder during a felony. Harris was bound over on her original charges of accessory after the fact, first-degree murder premeditated and accessory after the fact first-degree murder during a felony and tampering with evidence.
Walton ordered both of the defendants to report to Criminal Court on Nov. 20. He ruled that bond remain at $250,000 for Harris and $300,000 for Pate.